What is non-measurable and non-predictable will remain non-measurable and non-predictable no matter how many PhDs you put on the job…

quotes from Taleb's "Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder"

quotes from Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder”

A fantastic book that I recommend for all fisheries scientists (and otherwise) out there. Nassim TALEB1-300x300Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder” – just recently released.

There’s a pretty decent review at Scientific American that sums things quite well:

…he’s brilliant, funny and fearless and tackles consequential topics. What are the limits of science? Of understanding and prediction? Given our limited ability to know and control the world, how should we live our lives? How can we prosper in spite—and even because—of life’s vicissitudes?

A former derivatives trader, Taleb made his reputation by bashing conventional economics and finance, but his scope has always ranged far beyond Wall Street. His Big Idea is that life inevitably serves up surprises, or “black swans”–from AIDS and nuclear weapons to the 9/11 attacks and the internet—that our necessarily retrospective models of reality cannot foresee.

…Here is how he sums up his message in The Wall Street Journal: “We should try to create institutions that won’t fall apart when we encounter black swans—or that might even gain from these unexpected events… To deal with black swans, we instead need things that gain from volatility, variability, stress and disorder.” That is what Taleb means by “antifragile.” He offers some suggestions for achieving antifragility in government, business and other spheres: “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.” “Favor businesses that learn from their own mistakes.” “Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.” “Trial and error beats academic knowledge.” “Decision makers must have skin in the game.”

Taleb has a decent editorial in the Wall Street Journal this past November:

Learning to Love Volatility: In a world that constantly throws big, unexpected events our way, we must learn to benefit from disorder, writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Several years before the financial crisis descended on us, I put forward the concept of “black swans“: large events that are both unexpected and highly consequential. We never see black swans coming, but when they do arrive, they profoundly shape our world: Think of World War I, 9/11, the Internet, the rise of Google.

I also recommend Taleb’s earlier book from 2007, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The review on Amazon sums it well:

A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

This certainly sounds like the 2010 return of Fraser sockeye… the big one. And in turn the ‘collapsed’ run of the year previous.

There are some pretty good YouTube clips of Taleb speaking. He’s known to be volatile and unpredictable at times. In one of his calmer appearances, he has a great comparison between plane crashes and bank failures…

He suggests that when a plane crashes, generally people die – however, we learn from those crashes, which in turn reduces future plane crashes.

Yet when big banks crash and fail, we don’t learn from those events and in fact, more big banks fail more regularly.

Taleb suggests, as the handwritten quotes above suggest, that we spend far too much time and resources trying to predict things, that we can’t in fact predict.

Hmmmm. like salmon runs? for one.

And two, predictions of how many salmon can be caught from those badly predicted run sizes… yet retain the ‘health’ and ‘resilience’ of these runs, or collection of salmon runs which comprise the Fraser sockeye runs?

And so on, and so on.

We know that the concept, and formulaic practice of determining Maximum Sustainable Yield in fisheries is a highly failed, flawed, and screwy model. It should be banished, yet it still dominates ‘fisheries management’…. [see free E-book in right hand column]

…that term in itself a misnomer… it implies we can ‘manage’ the fish, and in turn the ‘fishers’ that target and bonk them… the latter being somewhat more ‘controllable’… ‘manageable’….

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

Wading through Justice Cohen’s reports, evidence (or lack of…), and 1000+ pages makes me think of Taleb’s quote above: ‘the limit is mathematical, period, and there is no way around it on this planet. What is nonmeasurable and nonpredictable will remain nonmeasurable and nonpredictable no matter how many PhDs you put on the job.’

And like banks and politicians — no one is held accountable for making bad or wrong predictions based on complex spreadsheets and formulaic equations. As Taleb essentially asks: what if we held scientists accountable, would we continue to get the same bullshit models and faulty prediction regimes? He suggests that far too few ‘predictors’ and ‘spreadsheet makers’ are ever held accountable for their ‘predictions’.

What if fisheries scientists and predictors and prognosticators were held accountable for their predictions? and risk models? and so on…?

Would we all of a sudden see a massive simplifying of this ever-increasing ‘science’ which is not really a ‘science’. Similar to economists, fisheries scientists can predict future salmon runs with as much accuracy as the prognosticators predicting where financial markets will close next Wednesday…

They/we can’t.

So why do we continue to waste millions and millions of dollars on faulty science, predictions, consultants, law professionals, and so on.

As has been pointed out in recent posts, and many past posts, wild salmon inhabit far too many vast areas (e.g. the North Pacific) of which we will never, ever be able to make accurate ‘predictions’ about. So why flaunt and flit about suggesting that we ‘understand’ things that we don’t…

It’s kind of like lying on one’s resume then getting the job, or taking performance enhancing drugs for decades and yet maintaining innocence, or lining one’s own pockets or those of their friends while an elected politician…

“Our track record in figuring out significant rare events in politics and economics [and natural systems] is not close to zero; it is zero.”

5 thoughts on “What is non-measurable and non-predictable will remain non-measurable and non-predictable no matter how many PhDs you put on the job…

  1. Eric Wickham

    I also Have been enjoying reading anti-fragile.
    Love His style of writing, personal biases and interesting view of the world.

    As to jumping to the conclusion that you cannot predict salmon runs I think leaves too easy an out for DFO. What about Alaska ,where predictions consistently come within 10%? Besides DFO is not in the business of managing fisheries. it is in the business of managing DFO and keeping it at a high growth level. That’s why the Cohen commission is all all noise!
    They very successfully manage that process from the appointment of that judge and everything he got to hear. So not surprising that the good judge recommended growth items for DFO Not for the sockeye salmon.

    Perhaps if we started with the assumption that if you bonk the salmon on the head and killed him he will not get To spawn. That if you completely destroyed a portion of his habitat especially spawning area he will not get To spawn
    Who got to bonk him on the head is not the issue.
    Also we could look at our neighbors . why is it that Alaska, Russia and Japan are more successful with their salmon runs than us?

  2. salmon guy Post author

    Hi Eric, thanks for leaving the comment.
    The post is certainly not meant to be an ‘easy out’ for DFO… which is sort of the ongoing paradox… that particular government dept. will often carry on about its ‘exact’ science when it’s convenient to do so, and continue to build various ‘models’ that are built upon flawed models which are built upon flawed assumptions – e.g., the Fraser River Spawning Sockeye Initiative (FRSSI – playfully referred to as ‘frizzy’).

    However, when the models and equations and whatever else fail – then the convenient excuse comes out – “but, but… it’s hard to predict these things…”

    I’m not so sure where your info comes from on Alaska, Russia, and Japan…? Search some older posts on this site and you’ll see the info on some of the practices of those nations. Japan for example now has its salmon fisheries based on about 95% ‘enhanced’ stocks… meaning hatcheries, etc. A lot of Alaskan salmon stocks are now dependent on ‘ocean ranching’ for their fisheries – plus conditions of the North Pacific might suggest more favorable conditions for northern stocks. Russia is sitting on a big chunk of proposed investment into ‘enhancement’ and ‘hatcheries’ – some suggest in the neighborhood of $2 billion. That’s not a good sign.

    I’d also suggest that it’s certainly not DFO looking to grow as they continue to be decimated by budget cuts – however, for those engaged in salmon research (e.g. for profit companies and researchers) it may not be a bad time.

    yet, I would agree with your assessment that the Cohen Commission will most likely end out being a bunch of noise – similar to so many other past inquiries, reviews and so on. (Especially in light of the current Conservative ruling Omnibus Bill).

    thanks again for leaving the comment… seems like an unfinished discussion…

  3. Eric Wickham

    More discussion.
    Alaska Salmon catches have being running 150 -200 million range for a couple of decades now. They were way less than 50 million back in the 1950s
    I like the numbers for Prince William sound:
    50 years ago about catch about 3 million annually.
    before the Exxon Valdez ran Aground catch of about 10 million annually currently about 50 million annually!
    The chum fishery in northern Japan has some very large numbers.
    Higher than British Columbia’s catch many years .
    Though your point that this is all been achieved by Enhancement is completely correct.

    My personal bias is that enhancement is a great thing. Seeing that we have Decided to chop down most of the forest which reduces the runoff of nutrients into the lakes and rivers to go ahead and add nutrients to make up for it seems realistic. Also enhancement like spawning channels which is just duplicating what nature does in my mind is a good thing for the salmon.
    We are so busy making massive alterations to the world to say stop is not realistic so let’s look at the positive alterations.

    As to DFO’s budgets if you’ll study them over the long-term this either been on pretty well constant growth curve, (that is the overall budget for DFO ).
    they do very occasionally get a reduction but the reality is $1.5 billion dollars aYear is a hell of a lot more than they’ve got in the past.
    Yes they’re always crying about budget reductions that’s part of the strategy to get the increases and it seems most people haven’t researched it and believe that they are tight for funds which is not the case at all.
    450 million for Pacific region and all the crying because They were asked to look at reducing their budget by 5% over a period of years.
    So they suggested closing the kits Coast Guard base to save 1 million knowing that this would cause an uproar and the request for reduction would disappear.
    Take off the hundred million for West Coast Coast Guard operations and you have 350 million for fish management. I would love to manage our resource for 350 million.
    I remember the days when Department of fisheries was one floor of one small building in the west end and those managers did a better job than the current mob. Many were ex-Air Force from the second world war and they knew about getting a job done.
    As an aside do know that if DFO overruns its budget, which it does just about every year it goes to treasury for a supplement which it gets just about every year . Nice deal wish I had that when I was running a fishboat.
    Cheers Eric

  4. Eric Wickham

    I noticed that Alaska is predicting a catch of 180million salmon next year.
    Also a recent study shows that the majority of the salmon returning are not hatchery fish but wild returns.

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